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Lifting cities is the key to a green and just recovery

Cities have been on the front-line of the pandemic and need support. Can they now become the engines of recovery?



Last month, major U.S. cities from coast to coast and north to south joined cities across the globe in issuing an action plan to directly address a "green and just recovery." The plan was produced by the C40 Global Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task force, whose aim is rebuilding cities and economies in a way that "improves public health, reduces inequality and addresses the climate crisis" — a strong ESG agenda.

In its introduction, the report declares:

The pandemic has starkly lit the glaring inequality in our cities, countries and globally. The most marginalized have been hit hardest, and we have been reminded that for any of us to be safe, all of us have to be safe… The crisis has demonstrated what happens when the risks we know about become reality…. We need social and environmental justice together: one won’t be possible without the other.

Model advocates for many objectives the green business community holds dear, C40 mayors call on governments at every level, banks and financial institutions to join them in their strong agenda. "The only stimulus should be a green stimulus" is their first call to action, followed by commitment to an equitable and inclusive recovery, the protection and championing of mass transit, prioritizing and investing in clean energy, ending public fossil fuel investments and subsidies.

The engines of recovery

Cities have been on the front line of the pandemic and need support. C40 Cities’ call to action includes the investment in cities as the engines of recovery. Cities’ own action agenda for recovery focuses on:

  • Action for jobs and an inclusive economy — quickly creating new, good green jobs, and training and upskilling workers to enable a just transition.
  • Action for resilience and equity — providing the fundamental public services that underpin a fair society and strong-economy: safe mass transit; clean water, food and sanitation; and affordable healthy housing.
  • Action for health and well-being — creating 15-minute cities, returning public space to people and nature, reclaiming our streets and guaranteeing clean air.

How can business help?

Cities’ to-do list is one that the business community in general, and the sustainable business community in particular, is well-positioned to assist with. To ignore this opportunity is to take a business risk, because cities and communities everywhere are the last mile of most business’ value chain. Just as a smart business seeks good partners in its supply chain, so too should it be a good partner to those it supplies.

Cities have been on the front-line of the pandemic and need support. C40 Cities’ call to action includes the investment in cities as the engines of recovery.

Communities are where "stuff" creates value and becomes meaningful. They are where physical, emotional, intellectual and creative well-being manifests — or does not.

How can your business be a good supplier to the communities you directly and indirectly serve? Most obviously, you can supply sustainably created products and services, at a cost-effective price.

You can also apply focus to supplying:

  • Products and services that contribute to well-being.
  • Your sales reps with the question: "Is there anything you need that I can help with?"

Beyond these, you have the opportunity to step up your support to communities, supplying:

  • Strong support to essential workers.
  • Equitable employment at a wage level and consistency that allows people to thrive.
  • Diverse workforce, digital workforce and leadership development.
  • Community venues and pop-up spaces to support emerging small business and innovation.
  • Investment in community development funds.
  • Community-partnered solution innovation.
  • Robust tax contributions (the original public-private partnership).
  • Green and just stimulus advocacy.
  • Advocacy on equity-enhancing policies such as tax reform, housing and homelessness services.
  • More equitable small-business-friendly policies, such as affordable health care, student debt relief, a desegregated education system and more.
  • In other ways, live up the aspirational corporate purpose to promote an economy that serves all Americans.

Embedding equity

Active community partnership and embedding equity into our evolving "new normal" will not be easy, in part because we are awash in assumptions born of privilege. Even as I am missing my own pre-pandemic walkable neighborhood, I’m reminded of the privilege that "missing it" implies. Many neighborhoods never have enjoyed the eager investment or innovation that mine has.

And simply walking, biking or eating without harassment in a newly opened street, or breathing the surrounding air for that matter, is not a safe thing to do in many equity-deprived communities.

Destiny Thomas, a Black planner and community organizer, urgently calls for the design of low-stress street networks that specifically center on the safety of and joy-filled travel by Black people.

Meanwhile, the essential workers and minority businesses serving us there are too often not enjoying access to the basic protections of an uncrowded home or a PPP loan that have been keeping many of us safe and in business. Just a few weeks before George Floyd’s death, social distancing was creating new random reasons to arrest a Black man on the street.

Much deeper transformation remains on our plates before we can get this right. Given the pervasiveness of a privileged point of view, we cannot assume that our responses to new circumstances will not create more of the same. Without equity-enlightened community engagement and vigilantly equitable community design, we run the risk of evolving forward into even less-inclusive approaches to problem-solving than before. Already, an insular sense of safety has produced highly selective social-circling and a growing trend toward private micro-schools. Our exposure to one another is further diminishing — for those who can afford it.

Some progress is being made. Oakland, California; Boston and Los Angeles are getting specific, focusing an equity lens on community wealth-building, air quality and heat islands, respectively. Richmond, Virginia, is applying an equity index over its planning maps to help visualize relevant correlations and opportunities. But we have only just begun.

Our work is cut out for us. It promises to be a transformative journey, and well worth it. For by any name, it is in developing well-being across people and planet that we will drive profit — and not the other way around.

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